Homosexuality in Japan: The Meiji Gap

The effects of Meiji reforms on women have been pretty well documented: the continued legality of prostitution, including indenture; the consolidation of male power within family law and politics; the rise of the “Good Wife; Wise Mother” cult of femininity, education; etc. There’s been relatively little research that I’m aware of which really takes the male experience of Meiji all that seriously, separate from the general “Japanese” experience. One of the areas in which that’s really obvious, even to my students, is sexuality.

How quickly can the closet door close? One of the as-yet unstudied oddities of Japanese history is the shift in male sexuality from the Tokugawa to Meiji eras. As an example of the state of the field, here’s a recently published translation of a Japanese article from about two years ago:

Although there are many literary and artistic representations dating from the Edo period (1603-1857) which describe sexual acts which took place between men using terms such as danshoku and wakashu, at that time participating in such acts did not designate a specific type of person and so these records cannot be read as part of the history of ‘gay’ or ‘homosexual’ men. The so-called ‘birth’ of the homosexual took place in Japan in the Meiji (1858-1912) and Taisho (1912-25) periods when participating in same-sex sexual acts came to be understood as the result of a personal disposition, but almost no first-person narratives survive from this time.

The only records which remain from this period are case studies and analyses from a genre of sexology publications dating from 1900 which treated ‘homosexuality’ as one example of ‘perverse sexuality.’ There are also some articles and reports about cross-dressing male prostitutes who existed before and after World War II, but these reports, are also ‘about’ homosexuals and do not represent their own voices. However, this period of silence in which there were no records created by homosexuals themselves began to change in 1950 with the appearance of magazines such as Amatoria which took sex as their theme.

The near-total silence of Meiji sources is quite remarkable. It’s not like all the samurai just disappeared, and there’s a great deal of continuity in social, family, consumptive and cultural practices between Tokugawa and Meiji. I’m quite sure that the influence of Western sexual taboos is very strong in this regard, but it’s somewhat surprising that the deliberately transgressive and sexual “I-novel” writings of the Meiji and Taisho eras, for example, contain no (as far as I know) considerations of homosexuality.

It’s possible, I suppose, that the “Tokugawa” traditions of male-male sexual practices are really “early-mid” Tokugawa practices, which had mostly died out by the 19th century, but that’s a question for someone who knows the literature better than I. It’s also possible that the silence in the sources is a temporary thing, a result of our research interests, but there are people actively studying sexuality in Japan and it strikes me as odd, but not at all dispositive, that so little has been found.


  1. Surely the problem is not confined to the Meiji period, in the sense that most of the literary and other evidence cited for the Tokugawa period by Japanese and Western scholars relates to the first half of the period. It is much rarer, in literary and other sources, to find reference to danshoku in the first half of the nineteenth century. SO perhaps the problem is rather one of the fate of male-male sexuality in the 19th century, rather than of the Meiji period. Incidentally, I don’t but the argument in the translated excerpt that “participating in such acts did not designate a specific type of person and so these records cannot be read as part of the history of ‘gay’ or ‘homosexual’ men”: this smacks of Fukuzawa Yukichi’s attempts to rewrite the history of Japan by pretending that banks, exhibitions, post and other social institutions he encountered in the West did not exist in Japan because they did not conform to Western models. Can the author of the translated piece seriously be suggesting that the history of Japanese homosexuality starts in the Meiji period?

  2. I think the author is arguing just that, actually, defining homosexuality as a modernistic and exclusive identity. I’ve seen similar arguments about non-exclusive same-sex relationships applied to 19c US, early modern Europe, etc, usually as part of an attempt to argue that there is no “tradition” of homosexuality to justify the public acceptance of homosexuality in the present.

    Has anyone done a serious study of the Tokugawa trajectory you describe — decreasing references over time — or is this going to have to be the next project for some brave soul?

  3. I know of no serious study on the subject, but having read a lot of prose and other literature from the Edo period I noticed that the subject virtually disappears from the literary field and the lack of references to the early 19th century in existing studies of the subject indicates to me a lacuna. What that lacuna represents, of course, is another matter, a topic for some brave soul, as you put it, for convincingly demonstrating a negative is going to require pretty exhaustive coverage of a wide range of sources!

  4. Japanese man/man sex? Now you’re talkin my language!

    When I decided to study Japanese sexuality, specifically men’s sexuality, for fun and my honors thesis (I just have a BA in Anthropology/Asian Studies – sorry if I’m a little green…), I found quite a few texts of interest and have a list of names of people who have done extensive research. Not on hand, but I’ll come back and post a truncated version of my bibliography. And heck, I’d even delve into it again if you’s like…

    Anyways, so glad I found this blog! As I’m living in Japan, it’s quite informative. My Japanese is still rudimentary…. Douzo yoroshiku!

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.